Walmart, 112 Dead Bangladeshis and You

Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, late Saturday, No
Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, late Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. At least 112 people were killed in a fire that raced through the multi-story garment factory just outside of Bangladesh's capital, an official said Sunday. (AP Photo/Hasan Raza)

(My friends at the Fantasy Kingdom amusement park located near the site of the factory that burned on Sunday in Ashulia, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers.)

They stood at the windows of the building, 100-feet above the ground, skin boiling. Fire behind and nothing ahead.

There was no choice.

Was it more courageous to stay and burn or to jump? It takes about two-and-a-half seconds for a person to fall 100 feet. That's two-and-a-half seconds of air cooling enflamed skin, two-and-a-half-seconds of relief before the end.

One of the advantages -- and there are few -- of jumping was that your family could identify your body. Eight workers jumped. Workers on the ground thought they were bails of clothing being thrown out the windows, as if that made sense, as if clothes need saving, as if they are worth more than lives.

This isn't the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 that outraged the American public and helped propel labor rights forward in the United States. This isn't then. This is now. This is 100 years after that fire. These aren't Americans. These are Bangladeshis making products for Americans.

Twenty-nine Bangladeshi garment workers burned alive, were asphyxiated by smoke, or jumped to their deaths during the garment factory fire in Ashulia, Bangladesh, on December 14th, 2010. I wrote about the tragedy in my book Where Am I Wearing?

I visited Ashulia in 2007, and I took 19 kids and an old farmer to the Fantasy Kingdom amusement park there for the price of one ticket to Disney World ($67). Most garment workers could never afford the $3 admission on their own. I rode a roller coaster with three young garment workers, Russell, Zumon, and Habir. Habir was 18 and a five year veteran of a local garment factory. Russell went to school for six years and spoke a little English. All three were doing their darndest to grow mustaches and had a blast on the roller coaster. The day was one of the most memorable of my life.

When I learned of the 2010 factory fire, I was horrified. Were they in the fire? Did they jump?

I hoped that I would never have to ask the question again, but on Sunday it happened once more. Just like Triangle in 1911, just like 2010 -- exits were locked, fire extinguishers didn't work, and workers lost their lives in the fire or jumped to their deaths.

Many of us will wag our fingers at the brands the factory was filling orders for, including Walmart's Faded Glory line, Sean Comb's Enyce, and Dickies. We'll criticize the companies for chasing lower wages (the minimum wage in Bangladesh is now $37; it was $24 when I was there in 2007). But they are just giving us what we want: cheaper prices.

The timing of the event is striking, since Friday was Black Friday, a day in which leftover-fueled Americans chased bottom dollar deals. Sales were up! This is good! A record Black Friday!

The Sunday of the fire was even blacker in Bangladesh.

I have an online friend who works for Walmart. I emailed him before Black Friday asking him what he thought of the Walmart workers threatening to strike in the United States.

Here's what he told me:

I don't like working 12 hours so people can trample each other to buy $4 bath towels for $1.88 or a $60 DVD player for $25.

But here's the thing: I don't like everything about the job, but I knew the nature of this beast when I applied for the job. And in the present economy, I feel blessed to have a job. There are changes that ought to be made. Others that need to be made, but you won't find me on a picket line. I need a job too badly to complain.

His statement sounds an awfully lot like how we justify workers in Bangladesh earning a monthly income of $37 and having to spend almost half of that income just to feed their families rice: they need the opportunity.

In the name of lack of opportunity and poverty, we are exploiting American workers and Bangladeshi workers.

How long will we justify injustice?

We are paying a high cost for chasing low prices. As many as 80 percent of Walmart employees at some stores are on food stamps. In total Walmart employees receive $2.66 billion in government subsidies. Since 2006, 700 Bangladeshis have died in garment fires. When we demand everyday low prices, we get everyday low wages and bad working conditions. We are saving money, but are we living better?

Walmart doesn't like unions; that's not a secret, but the Bangladeshi business community really doesn't like unions. Labor leaders have been killed. Worker protests for higher wages in the face of rising food prices have met violent opposition.

Here's the thing though: If Walmart and other companies that source from countries like Bangladesh don't want their charred labels showing up on the scenes of tragic factory fires, they need to support unions.

No amount of audits and unannounced audits or reports will improve working conditions more than an empowered workforce. Walmart has forever altered retail. Imagine what they could do for Bangladesh, for global poverty, and for American poverty if they stood with workers? Imagine if we, the American consumers, fought for justice as much as we fought for the last "doorbuster" flatscreen?

Were my friends Russell, Zumon, and Habir among the ashes? Did they jump? I'll never know. But as long as we continue to chase lower prices at all costs, these types of tragedies will continue to happen, and I'll have to ask these same questions again.


What can you do?

See how transparent your favorite brand's supply chain is by checking out Free2Work's report (spoiler alert: Walmart gets a D!) The Story Behind the Barcode